By Gary Anderson
May 11, 2017
It is spring in Afghanistan, the poppies are blooming, the Taliban are in the midst of its yearly spring offensive, and the annual Afghani policy review is underway in Washington. As usual, the arguments range from getting out of the place altogether to sending more troops. Having watched Afghanistan for 16 years and having been in and out of it numerous times, my recommendation is to keep doing what we are doing.
We did not get into Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban; we went there to get rid of al Qaeda that the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, had foolishly invited in when the Taliban were effectively in charge of the country. We wanted to eliminate Afghanistan as a staging base for al Qaeda, and that happened fairly quickly. The decision to stay around and help the new Afghan government destroy the Taliban while rebuilding Afghanistan into a western-style democracy came later. Neither of these goals was doable 16 years ago when we first intervened, and they aren’t doable today. That doesn’t mean we should pack up and leave. But it does mean we should adjust our expectations.
The bottom line is that the war is stalemated, but there are worse things than a tie game. The Taliban cannot afford to quit. They have become largely a “for profit” organization. This is why the Islamic State (ISIS) is making inroads in some religiously conservative parts of the country where the ISIS fighters portray themselves as an alternative to Taliban corruption. We may eventually see a one-nation, two-army system in Afghanistan with both sides conducting operations against ISIS insurgents.
The goal of destroying the Taliban was never realistic. To the extent that there is a coherent Taliban organization, its aspirations are shared by many in the male-dominated Pashtun society in which the Taliban live. Almost every male Pashtun has some kind of relative who is either currently in the organization or who has died fighting Americans and friends of Americans. Tribal and family loyalty count for too much.
As for turning Afghanistan into an Asian Switzerland, that is also a bridge too far. The insistence that the country could be ruled effectively by a centralized bureaucracy is a delusion by Afghan elites. The nation does not have the communications or transportation infrastructure to allow for centralized rule. One of the few things that the Obama administration got right in Afghanistan was the realization that major nation-building was a fool’s errand.
The Taliban do not like our presence or that of our allies. The fact that they themselves invited in the first foreign fighters in the guise of al Qaeda is a moot argument at his point. Now that ISIS is making inroads in Afghanistan, the warlords of the north, the government in Kabul and the Taliban all now face a foreign fighter threat much more ominous than any western army or even the Russians.
All of that said, continuing to build an effective Afghan army remains a necessity for the residual American and NATO forces in the country. The majority of non-Pashtun Afghans and many moderate Pashtun want no part of the Taliban or their ideology. The security forces protect population centres such as Kabul, and although they may never be able to destroy the Taliban or even eject them from traditional Pashtun strongholds, the Afghan army and the national police provide a shield for those who do not want to live under harsh religious rule, whoever is imposing it.
The Afghan army also plays an educational role. Many who enter its ranks as functional illiterates have to learn to read and write. It will take years for the nation-building effect to pay off, but Afghan society will eventually be better off for the effort. In addition, as the army becomes more logistically proficient, the technical skills learned by former soldiers will translate effectively into making a more skilled civilian work force.
Other than continuing to build up the security forces, the American and coalition military presence gives the Kabul government a bargaining chip for an eventual peace settlement with the Taliban where we agree to leave if they will stop fighting. It is unlikely, but not unthinkable.
Afghanistan is a far better place than we found if — even if the war against the Taliban is stalemated. It is a troubled state, but not a failing state. A tie may be like kissing your sister, but a failed state would be far worse.
• Gary Anderson is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who was a civilian adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq.